On a sunny morning last May, a member of Harvard’s graduating class received her diploma and prepared to depart from campus as quietly as she had arrived. Xi Mingze—the only child of Xi Jinping, the President of China, and his wife, the celebrity soprano Peng Liyuan—crossed the podium at Adams House, the dorm that housed Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger. She had studied psychology and English and lived under an assumed name, her identity known only to a limited number of faculty and close friends—“less than ten,” according to Kenji Minemura, a correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun, who attended the commencement and wrote about Xi’s experience in America.
Xi Mingze was largely protected from press attention, much like the college-age children of other heads of state (legal proceedings excepted). Some offspring of other Chinese leaders have courted attention abroad, however. Before the former Politburo member Bo Xilai was imprisoned for corruption and his wife, Gu Kailai, jailed for murder, their son, Bo Guagua, invited Jackie Chan to Oxford, and sang with him onstage; he drove a Porsche during his time as a graduate student at Harvard. Xi, on the other hand, led a “frugal life” in Cambridge, according to Minemura. “She studied all the time,” he told me recently.
At twenty-two, Xi Mingze has now returned to China; though she makes few public appearances, she joined her parents on a recent trip to Yan’an, the rural region where her father was sent to work during the Cultural Revolution, when he was a teenager. In the magazine last week, I profiled Xi Jinping, and noted that he often says that his years in Yan’an, when he was the age that his daughter was at Harvard, made him into who he is as an adult: “Many of the fundamental ideas and qualities I have today were formed in Yan’an.”
Though Xi Jinping has traveled widely, he has never lived abroad; unlike his predecessors Jiang Zemin (who studied at the Stalin Automobile Works, in Moscow) and Deng Xiaoping (who lived in France for five years, and studied in the Soviet Union), Xi made a decision to not live outside China. His first wife wanted to settle in Britain, and Xi did not; they divorced. As he rose through the ranks, Xi had frequent dealings with Westerners, but his government has recently taken a harder line against ideas from abroad. His education minister, Yuan Guiren, said recently, “We must, by no means, allow into our classrooms material that propagates Western values.” Many of us who follow China wonder: What does Xi Mingze tell her father about her life in America? How did living on a campus that doesn’t restrict discussion of China’s painful chapters—the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution—affect her world view?
For Chinese citizens, the effects of studying in the United States are rarely as simple as the cliché of coming home with wildly different ideas. Analyses of foreign students have found that Chinese citizens are more likely than others to stay in America. Ninety-two per cent of Chinese graduates remain in America five years after receiving a Ph.D., compared to forty-one per cent of South Koreans, according to a study by the National Science Foundation; the researchers loosely attributed the disparity to differences in family pressure and job opportunities. Going home doesn’t always feel easy, either. A 2009 survey, sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, found that seventeen per cent of Chinese respondents considered it difficult to settle in the U.S.—but that twice as many, thirty-four per cent, reported difficulty going home, because of reverse culture shock, pollution, and other factors.
In the most thorough look at how studying abroad shapes the views of Chinese returnees, Donglin Han and David Zweig found that those who had lived overseas—in this case, those who had spent time in Canada and Japan—believed more strongly in “coöperative internationalism,” and were slightly less supportive of assertive nationalism, compared to members of the middle class who had never lived abroad. But the authors also noted a remarkable point: “A strikingly significant proportion of returnees support Chinese foreign policy, regardless of ‘whether it is right or wrong.’ ” This may be a result of self-selection (nationalistic students are more likely to return), but it also underscores the magnifying effect of living far away from home. Anyone who has lived overseas probably knows or can recall the temptation to hold fast to national characteristics, partly in contrast with an adopted land and partly out of resentment of foreigners’ criticisms. Cheng Li, of the Brookings Institution, has noted that, contrary to the myth of “democracy by osmosis”—the notion that simply living in the U.S. will make foreigners more congenial to democratic-liberal ideas—many of the most strident nationalist books in China are written by people who have returned from abroad.
If Xi Mingze were to someday choose a public life, we may discover what she brought home to the dinner-table conversation. In the meantime, other Chinese citizens abroad have helped to complicate our understanding of democracy by osmosis. Earlier this year, a fascinating piece called “Patriotism Abroad,” published in the Journal of Studies in International Education, compiled the views of anonymous Chinese faculty and students living outside the country. A woman teaching in the natural sciences said, “In China, people often complain. But in America, I want to see the positive side of China. It has something to do with pride, you know; I want to feel proud to be Chinese.”
Evan Osnos joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2008, and covers politics and foreign affairs.